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New laser technology spots bottles of counterfeit whisky

In 2018, BBC reported that 21 of 55 randomly selected bottles of rare scotch were fake when tested for validity. At auction, counterfeit whiskies were commanding top prices, but were not discovered for years after the fact. Now, researchers in Scotland developed a new device that imitates the human tongue’s ability to “taste” differences in the flavor profiles of whiskey. It was invented in response to the surge in counterfeits to make the verification process possible without opening a vintage bottle.

Because the process of distilling spirits is complex, each batch carries a distinct chemical profile due to its ingredients, processing, and aging that give it a unique fingerprint that various validation techniques hope to identify. Verification techniques using spectroscopy or spectrometry technologies can cause discrepancies due to the glass bottle’s interactions with laser light, requiring researchers to wait to verify the whiskey by further chemical analysis until the bottle is opened. Additionally, chromatography methods require sophisticated lab equipment, increasing cost and time required to receive valid results. However, these researchers from Glasgow developed their “optical tongue device” by relying on metallic nanostructures of multiplexed gold and aluminum to identify chemical mixtures in a pattern-recognition method using reflectivity characteristics instead of relying on chemical solutions that separate and identify chemical compounds present in a liquid. By only using three sensing regions on the device, it achieves a more portable design without sacrificing accuracy. Additionally, this new device makes it possible to filter out the noise of the glass in the validation process, allowing for the chemical profile to be identified without opening the bottle. While created to authenticate rare whiskies, the technology can also be applied to other spirits including gin or vodka. Hopefully now, validation can occur before auction to secure the integrity of the market.